Is President Sirleaf’s Experience An Obstacle To New Policy?

By J. Yanqui Zaza

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 14, 2007


During the 2005 elections, experience, which became a pivotal factor in the determining the winner, is once again emerging, except that the experience of our President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will not help her government in instituting a people’s policy. Experience, according to the former U. S. President John F. Kennedy, “is like taillights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when should be focusing on where we should be going.” Experience could useful if it is aligned to new ideas, but it might become a hurdle if it were diametrically opposed to a policy.

President Sirleaf gained her experience primarily from the True Whig Party which was focused on enriching elites, rather than building schools, roads, clinics, etc. Subsequently, her international employers indoctrinated her in influencing countries to shift funds away from sustainable developmental projects to gigantic programs that ruin countries.

Presumably, because of her experience and the demand of the World Bank, she is now downsizing workers, selling our natural resources to de facto owners, etc instead of instituting people’s policies. The World Bank demands market reforms such as limiting a government’s role, selling natural resources to de facto owners, downsizing workers, etc before a country is qualified for debt relief of the Heavily Indebted of Poor Countries (HIPC) programs. Its theory implies that a country such as Liberia would not promote economic growth if its debt is reduced without market reforms.

Is the theory a new version of anti-people’s policy? This is not clear yet. However, Sierra Leone, which received debt cancellation in December 2006, and the other nineteen countries that have benefited from debt relief programs earlier have yet to report any progress on real economic growth. (Rick Rowden, THIRD WORLD TRAVELER). He said that the World Bank has informed debt relief recipients that no country would receive 100% debt relief. Rather, the Bank would reduce the debt to a sustainable level, as determined by a debt-to-exports ratio of 150 percent. For example, Cameroon's annual debt payments will be reduced by 40 percent. However, Cameroon will still pay, on average, $280 million per year. The projected payments far exceed the amount the country spends annually on education ($239 million) and health care ($87 million).

Despite the strings attached to HIPC programs, many people appreciate and commend President Sirleaf's efforts in reducing Liberia's debt. But at the same time, they are demanding an end to policies that are inimical to sustainable development. For instance, “The Analyst,” a local Liberian newspaper, dated December 5, 2007, said “The leadership today, as their predecessors had done before them, continues to be intimately connected with international investors; an alignment that has been shown to be detrimental to Liberia. It also said, “What we need is not rubber trees but food crops, manufacturers and to create agricultural economy that will help sustain development for posterity.”

Additionally, the veteran journalist, Rodney D. Sieh of the “FrontPage Africa,” a Liberian Web Site, reported on how the Government had adopted anti-people’s policy not only to increase Liberian Agricultural Corporation (LAC)’s acres from 300,000 to 600,000 but to also drive poor Bassonias from their ancestors’ land. Added to the policy of shifting money away from funding social programs was the news that the government was involved in selling iron ore at a price that was below market price.

Obviously President Sirleaf’s supporters were not silent, which is laudable. Amongst the many supportive comments, I got interested in Steve Radelet’s cautionary comment referred to by James F. Kollie, Jr. in his article called Liberia’s Development Challenges and Prospect. Radelet, who is reported to be a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) and also an advisor to President Sirleaf, is to have submitted his advice on policy to his boss. Radelet stated that rebuilding a sustainable economy in Liberia requires avoiding marginalizing and excluding majority of the population and instituting policies that discourage fewer of the population from accumulating a larger share of the country’s wealth.

Did the Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development incorporate his boss economic activities or policies of the World Bank in determining his recommendation? For example, besides the idea that salary disparity encourages corruption, did the payment of $25,000.00 per month to few advisors while the government downsizes workers increase wealth of the few at the expense of the majority? Or did the payment of $245,000.00 and $210,000.00 to the owners of buildings used by Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defense respectively (2005/2006 Liberian Budget), or the payment of $6 million dollars to Monrovia landlords shift the economic scale against teachers who did not get their 10 month-back salary, workers who were downsized, or unemployed citizens?

Can his advice change President Sirleaf’s policy from privatization to a policy that increases government's share of the profits of the diamonds industry and logging industry? Apparently, President Sirleaf's economic philosophy makes it unlikely for her to accept Radeleh's recommendations. She and her key advisors do embrace economic policies that promote exclusivity and individualism contrary to the theory of Thomas Hobbes: “Man primitive or otherwise is driven to seek ‘power, ambition, lucre, lust,’ and will take from others in the attempt to getting more, unless restrained.” Unlike Hobbes, they believe that government should institute policy that “makes the bully free to enslave the meek;” said Sir Karl Popper.

Curiously, why would Radeleh think that it is possible to magically improve the wellbeing of the majority when government would receive limited profits while those with capital (i.e., for example, Monrovia landlords) would receive a larger share of the dividends? Many experts including professor Jeffery D. Sachs of Columbia University have concluded that any profit mechanism that limits government's role usually yields smaller portion of the dividends for the majority. That's part of the reasons why the World Bank has failed in lifting countries out of poverty since 1944. So, should Radeleh hope that President Sirleaf's policies would promote real economic growth while she continues to implement policies of the World Bank?

Certainly, Let us hope that Ma Ellen would regain her status as “Iron Lady” and resist the World Bank as many countries in South America have. She could also emulate the views of some African leaders who have "… condemned the Bank and the Fund for persuading them to cut budgets and trim the ranks of teachers, nurses and other trained workers…" (Sharon LaFraaniere, NY Times, 1/15/07). And President Sirleaf could develop the political will and abandon those onerous policies of the World Bank as Malawi has done, by increasing its government’s role in food production. (NY Times, November 2007).

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